Mike describes a visit to a monastery offering free wine and how he learned a life lesson from an American hippie.

We made good progress from Villatuerta. The sky was grey, but the weather stayed fine. The Camino is full of surprises and I had forgotten that an opportunity for free alcohol was about to present itself. The wine fountain is part of the ancient Monastery of Irache, which is located in a suburb of Estelle.

Free wine at the Monastery of Irache, close to Estelle
Free wine at the Monastery of Irache, close to Estelle

There are two fountains; one dispenses wine and the other fresh water. For some reason, there was a lengthy queue for the wine and not much interest in the water. A sign below proclaimed: Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness. 

There was a celebratory mood among the pilgrims who were mostly unaware of the proximity of the Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de Irache alongside, which was founded in the 10th century, but coming a poor second here in comparison with an unlimited supply of free red wine. 

After six days of walking, I arrived in Torres del Rio and after registering I went to the restaurant for my ‘pilgrim’s meal’, but I wasn’t too keen on the company I was about to keep – or so I thought. The Camino was about to give me another lesson – don’t judge a book by its cover. 

Enjoying a café con leche with Marci and Jeanne, on the outskirts of Navarrete. They were from the States and they would become important members of my Camino family
Enjoying a café con leche with Marci and Jeanne, on the outskirts of Navarrete. They were from the States and they would become important members of my Camino family

I was shown to my table by a waiter from Peru and I found myself sitting opposite a middle-aged woman from the Czech Republic and there is no nice way of saying this, but she seemed plain and characterless. I thought she was going to be a bit of a bore, but it turned out she was a wizard with languages and when I asked her how many she spoke she couldn’t remember; probably around six. She had taught herself English in her bedroom and went to Norway when she was 16. She was fluent in Norwegian within a year and ended up teaching English at a university near Oslo. I think her IQ was about 190. Her English was perfect and without much of an accent. It was like talking to Joanna Lumley! There was also an American from Florida called Bob, who was softly spoken, 72 and strikingly handsome. He looked remarkably like Henry Fonda in one of his later roles as a Western sheriff.  We were joined by another American couple. The woman, who I took to be around 60, seemed normal, especially in comparison to her ‘bohemian’ husband – it was clear she had been a beautiful young woman. As for him; well, I had him figured out right away; just so and it took about three seconds. His name was Peter and he had beads on his wrists and a leather strap around his neck. He had long grey hair arranged untidily and concluded with a pigtail. Peter had lengthy sideburns and the best quiff seen this side of John Travolta in Grease. He reminded me of the red necked hillbillies who terrorised Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight in John Boorman’s horror classic Deliverance. Peter would be from Louisiana, so I thought. He would drive a Ford pick-up truck with a Confederate flag hanging from the window and a loaded Remington pump action shot gun on the passenger seat; just in case. Peter was going to be extremely disagreeable company – I just knew it. Then he opened his mouth and started speaking. He was a carpenter with an interest in medieval woodwork. Peter and his wife spent their spare time taking care of the homeless. He had centre stage and we were happy to let him keep it. He told us about his life in Oregon and about the brown bears, forests and seaboard cities. 

Peter was one of the most intelligent and charming men I have ever met and he hated Donald Trump. He told us how his daughter had married a man from Mexico and how they feared for their future. He also told us about security guards and border police who patrolled their area and arrested people without reason apart from the colour of their skin and how they could be deported without trial or an appeal. It sounded like Germany around 1938. What a night!

Next month: Crippled by blisters – until an Irish priest saves my Camino.

Miracles on the Camino by Mike Gardner can be downloaded directly onto your Kindle, mobile, tablet or computer from Amazon books for 4.32€. It has 173 pages and more than 80 pictures. It is also available as a hardback and can be delivered to your house in Spain.